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Google alums rev up a new search engine

July 28, 2008|Jessica Guynn

The search engine wars are heating up again with the public launch tonight of Cuil (pronounced "cool").

The Menlo Park start-up behind the website, at www.cuil.com, isn't trying to be a Google killer -- it's trying to reinvent search, said Anna Patterson, president and co-founder of Cuil.

She's an ex-Googler, the architect of the Web giant's TeraGoogle search index that launched in 2006. She joined Google in 2004 after her work on Recall, then the largest search engine with 12 billion pages, which she began programming during a difficult pregnancy. That feat spurred a bidding war among search engines for her services. (Note to moms: Microsoft does not allow breast-feeding in its lobby.)

As exciting as her three years at Google were, Patterson said she soon discovered she was an entrepreneur at heart.

A holder of a computer science doctorate and mother of four, Patterson said search engines can't keep up with the explosive growth of the Internet or with the needs of users, who often get frustrated sifting through random results. Cuil says it has come up with a search engine that indexes 120 billion Web pages, ranks results by relevance instead of popularity, organizes the results by ideas and protects the privacy of its users.

Cuil has what Patterson called a magazine layout, with tabs and images for subjects. It offers suggestions to assist in searches. And it does not collect personal data, so your search history is always private, she said. Advertising, to be added later, will be based on the content, not on people's surfing habits.

"We are trying to shake things up and find new ways to help people," Patterson said.

Patterson leads the company with her husband, CEO and co-founder Tom Costello, who researched and developed search engines at Stanford University and IBM. They are joined by a third founder, ex-Googler Russell Power, and Vice President of Products Louis Monier, a veteran of Google and EBay who also was the founding technology chief of the AltaVista search engine.

Cuil is an Irish name that means wisdom. And the team seems to be bringing that wisdom to the daunting task of improving search. The start-up, which has 30 employees and has raised $33 million, is taking its time at the task. "We are focused on slow and steady growth," Patterson said.

Cuil did not make the search engine available for us or others to play with. But Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, was impressed with the caliber and attitude of the entrepreneurs behind it.

"They are not about trying to make a lot of money in a short period of time," Sterling said. "They are building what they believe is the next-generation search engine. Its success or failure over time will depend on how relevant the search results are, how easy it is to use and how useful it is to people.

"Many have come before Cuil and tried to be the Google killer," Sterling added. "I don't think they have that attitude. They are just building a search engine."

How Cuil.

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jessica.guynn@latimes.com

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